Notre Dame probe ramps up as investigators question workers

Updated 4:23 PM EDT, Wed April 17, 2019
(CNN) —  

Prosecutors investigating the causes of the inferno that tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris have interviewed construction workers and security staff, as more details emerged about the effort to contain the blaze.

Ten people were interviewed by criminal investigators on Wednesday, the Paris Prosecutor’s Office said, adding that interviews would continue on Thursday. On Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office had said 30 employees at the Paris landmark had been questioned.

“Tomorrow new witnesses will be heard as well as people already interviewed for further information,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The prosecutor’s office said that in addition to interviews, forensics teams and the central laboratory for the police department had been able to access some areas of the site and begin inspections. Officials are continuing to pursue the theory that the cause of the fire was accidental but have not ruled out other scenarios at this stage, the prosecutor’s office added.

“While the prosecutor’s office does not rule out any hypothesis, we remind that at this stage, nothing in the investigations highlights a criminal origin. Accidental causes remain our privileged lead,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The Paris fire service, meanwhile, said the nine-hour battle to save the building was one of the most complex it had ever undertaken. At one point, it was feared that the entire structure might be lost.

“If the flames had actually got to the timber frames of the belfries then we would have lost the cathedral completely because it would have led to a chain reaction of collapse,” said Gabriel Plus, a spokesman for the fire service.

Philippe Demay, deputy chief of the Paris Fire Brigade, told reporters on Wednesday that the operation to put out the flames was “complex,” and the “most complicated” he had ever encountered.

Notre Dame in 1998, left, and during the 2019 fire.

Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, cathedrals across France rang their bells in honor of Notre Dame, marking two days since the fire. Bells tolled at 6:50 p.m. across the country acknowledging what the French Bishops Conference described as “a shock that affects far beyond just the Catholics of our country.”

The French government said it was committed to rebuilding the cathedral. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an international architects’ competition to replace the building’s fallen spire.

As the scale of the damage became clear, investigators said they were determined to get to the bottom of how the blaze started. “Investigations continue to search for the truth and identify the origins and causes of the fire,” the Paris Prosecutor’s Office said.

Scrutiny has fallen on the firms undertaking the renovation of the 150-year-old spire, which collapsed Monday as the flames raged around it.

00:37 - Source: CNN
Notre Dame: Aerial animation shows the damage caused by fire

Of the four companies contracted to carry out renovations at Notre Dame, two companies, scaffolding firm Europe Echafaudage and art conservationists Socra, had work in progress there at the time of the fire. Neither company had workers on site when the fire broke out, CNN has been told.

According to centraledesmarches.com, a website where private companies can bid for public projects, Europe Echafaudage and its parent company, Le Bras Freres, were awarded contracts worth €3,493,766 ($3,951,396) for scaffolding and other services.

Julien Le Bras, CEO of Europe Echafaudage, which received a contract to renovate the spire in 2017, told reporters Tuesday that 12 of his employees were working on the project, but that “there were absolutely no workers on site when the fire broke out, and there hadn’t been for quite a while before the fire.”

Mark Eskenazi, a PR representative for Le Bras Freres, said the company is speaking to experts about how to take down the scaffolding and “absolutely” denies responsibility for what happened, saying that its workers had left the cathedral one hour before the fire began. He called the fire a “crisis” for the small business of 20 workers. “They are artisans, it is a very small enterprise.”